I have to talk to you, my white, conservative, devoutly Christian, North Carolina cousins in the rural counties of the state’s east and west, about HB2.
I feel the need to say something to you not as an outsider who makes fun of your accent but as Ken’s granddaughter, who grew up with the run of the Smithfield not-junkyard, as the heir to some of Dot’s beautiful, impractical furniture and tacky, impractical lawn ornaments.
I grew up wading in the creeks that you did. I think I could find the church near Fuquay-Varina where we hold the family reunion without a GPS if I really had to do it. I have visited my grandmother’s people’s original land grant, a swamp. I made an entire law school admissions essay out of mountain driving. I know the stories of our great-great-grandparents in Watauga Co., the local lawyer and postmistress who were also subsistence farmers, small-scale moonshiners, and parents of many.
Though I never minded the little Sunday dresses in which my grandmother enjoyed displaying us at her church, I grew up to like suits better.
People who see me in public sometimes call me ‘ma’am’ and other times call me ‘sir.’ Either one is alright with me. What I wear, how I look, and what gender of potential spouse I might someday bring home to test for family compatibility have no bearing on the fact that I grew up with you. You taught me about the love of God, the value of hard work, the benefits of spending time outdoors, the importance of history, and how tomato based barbecue is a dangerous heresy. I love you. I would never hurt you, and nothing about my appearance changes that. HB2 is not keeping predators away. It is making me nervous about visiting and making life hard on a daily basis for NC residents, also your neighbors and cousins, who might identify as things like gender nonconforming or trans.
You are safe from me. I wish I could tell you that makes you safe, but you are in more trouble than you know. The oldest threat to your well-being in Southern history is on the move: wealthy and powerful people using bigotry and scapegoating to consolidate ever more money and power. These people distract you with hot button issues, pretend to care about your values, play to your worst impulses, and pass laws that serve their own interests and no one else’s. Then, they laugh at you and call you stupid hicks behind your backs for letting them. Traditionally, the wedge of choice was race, but bigotry is getting diversified just like everything else these days.
The actual and spiritual descendants of the wannabe feudal lords who held our distant ancestors as indentured servants, beat fortunes out of our Black neighbors and cousins during slavery, squeezed sharecropping families for all they were worth, and worked textile millworkers to death well into the 20th century are still here. They are still not our friends. Their interests and yours will always be opposed. You want North Carolina’s economic pie to get bigger so that your hard work gets you a decent living. They would be okay with the pie getting smaller so long as they can hoard more of it for themselves. You like capitalism plus a social safety net. Their ideal economic system is feudalism with no room for your children to be upwardly mobile.
They are creating a transgender bathroom problem that does not exist so that they can keep you distracted while they quietly dismantle things like the public education system that has helped perpetuate and grow North Carolina’s middle class. If they get what they want, North Carolina will sink into the kind of poverty and backwardness you see further south. Some elements in state politics would rather have you thinking about strangers’ genitals than jobs, roads, and especially schools. Unless you worry less about who uses which disgusting public toilet and more about your mass-exodus of teachers, you will be remembered as the generation that singlehandedly squandered over 200 years of our ancestors’ hard work and sacrifice.
I have no idea what our great-great-grandparents would think of the way I look, but they valued public education enough to somehow carve out time to get involved in the founding of ASU.
I have no doubt that they would be absolutely disgusted with you if they saw you losing North Carolina to the oldest trick in the book. The good news is that it is not too late. Register to vote. Nag your friends and family to register to vote. Give people rides to the polls. Demand to hear what candidates think about real issues, and make it clear that you will only vote for the ones who make education a priority. I have always spoken highly of your discourse, the way you think like free people, and your engagement with the democratic process. The worst of the Old South is coming out of the woodwork, but I think you have the wherewithal to stand your ground and stave off the unsavory characters who want this place to look like Mississippi. I think you will save the place that has been your home since before there was a United States. Please prove me right.